Many have only a minor record—a misdemeanor, or even an arrest without a conviction. But even a minor criminal record carries with it lifelong barriers that can block successful reentry and access to many of the essentials for economic security and upward mobility, like employment, housing, education, and job training.
The reason? Policy choices at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as the rise of technology and the ease of accessing data via the internet. A generation ago, access to criminal record information for housing applicants and jobseekers was unusual. Today, however, background checks are ubiquitous, with 4 out of 5 landlords and nearly 9 in 10 employers using criminal background checks to screen out people with criminal records before they even get a shot.
The result is that tens of millions of individuals are prevented from becoming productive members of society, and their families, communities, and the national economy are held back as well.
It is important to note that the lifelong consequences and stigma of having a criminal record stand in stark contrast to research on “redemption.” Studies show that once a person with a nonviolent conviction is crime-free for three to four years, his or her risk of recidivism is no different from the risk of arrest for the general population. Put differently, people are treated as criminals long after they pose any significant risk of committing further crimes—making it difficult for many to achieve basic economic security, much less upward mobility.
As detailed in a new Center for American Progress report to be released tomorrow—which I co-authored with Sharon Dietrich—mass incarceration and hyper-criminalization are now major drivers of poverty and inequality. Having a criminal record can stand in the way of employment, housing, public assistance, education and training, and more; convictions can result in significant monetary debts too. In fact, a recent study finds that our nation’s poverty rate would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004 if not for mass incarceration and the subsequent criminal records that burden people for years after they have paid their debts to society.
Communities of color—and particularly men of color—are disproportionately affected, and high-poverty communities generate a disproportionate share of Americans behind bars. Approximately 60% of people in America’s prisons are racial and ethnic minorities. Of those individuals serving time for drug offenses, about two-thirds are black or Latino. Research shows that mass incarceration and its effects have been significant drivers of racial inequality in the U.S., particularly during the past three to four decades.
The barriers associated with a criminal record also hurt the nation’s bottom line. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that the cost of people with criminal records being shut out of the labor market is a $65 billion annual hit to GDP. And that’s in addition to our nation’s skyrocketing expenditures for mass incarceration, which now total more than $80 billion annually.
It’s long past time that we create policies to ensure that Americans with criminal records have a fair shot at earning a decent living, providing for their families, and joining the middle class. Failure to address the lifelong barriers associated with a criminal record as part of a larger anti-poverty, pro-mobility agenda risks missing a major piece of the puzzle.
President Obama’s administration has been a leader on this important issue, for example by establishing the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which has brought 20 federal agencies together to coordinate and advance effective re-entry policies. States and cities across the country are also beginning to take action: To date, 13 states and 70 municipalities have enacted fair-chance hiring policies to help level the playing field for jobseekers with criminal records. And cities such as New Orleans and New York City have taken steps to remove obstacles to public housing for people with records.
But further action is needed at all levels of government. Our new report offers a roadmap for the Obama administration and federal agencies, Congress, states and cities, employers, and colleges and universities to ensure that a criminal record no longer presents an intractable barrier to economic security and mobility.
Bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform is growing, due in part to the enormous costs of mass incarceration, as well as an increased focus on evidence-based approaches to public safety. Policymakers and opinion leaders from across the political spectrum are calling for sentencing and prison reform, as well as policies that give people a second chance. Now is the time to find common ground and enact meaningful reforms that ensure a criminal record does not consign an individual to poverty.
We are thrilled that in conjunction with our report, TalkPoverty.org is featuring posts throughout the week from leaders in the criminal justice reform movement—including the Brennan Center, the Vera Institute of Justice, The Sentencing Project, the Center for Court Innovation, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and more—all exploring the link between mass incarceration and poverty, and solutions that would break that link. This week is not intended to be a comprehensive examination of criminal justice reform—we know it will only scratch the surface. But we hope it will help advance this important conversation, and we look forward to TalkPoverty.org continuing its commitment to criminal justice reform throughout the year.